It’s approaching decision time for many western Massachusetts towns as they consider bringing high-speed internet into their areas.
Forty-four towns, mostly in the rural western part of the commonwealth, are still underserved by the state’s broadband initiative launched by then-Governor Deval Patrick in 2008. Private companies haven’t seen the scattered population across hilly terrain as profitable enough to build their own network so people utilize libraries and town halls for speedy internet access. In order to make the connection the state is funneling $40 million to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for a roughly $115 million fiber-optic network. Meanwhile, Wired West, a regional organization formed in 2010, is leading the effort to reach the towns.
“We are at the point where we actually have to act,” said Wired West chair Monica Webb. “We’ve been talking, planning and researching for four years with Wired West and for the last year in partnership with the state’s broadband agency. Looking at the region, the solutions, how we can most astutely bring money to bear to make this critical investment for the region.”
Starting as early as this upcoming week at annual or special town meetings, voters in more than 30 communities across western Massachusetts could decide whether to authorize bonding for the construction of fiber-optic infrastructure. Approval requires a two-thirds majority. Though it varies due to population and miles of cable needed, Webb says towns would pay about 65 percent of the cost. For instance, Webb’s town of Monterey would bond nearly $2 million, while Becket would foot $3.8 million.
“What we anticipating happening is five or 10 towns moving forward this spring at most I’d say,” said MBI director Eric Nakajima said. “Then another tranche of towns coming in this fall and another next spring. What we’re trying to do is to set up our operations to support the design of the network and management of the network in a way that allows towns to come in when they want to come in.”
Meanwhile, Wired West is asking towns to show their interest by mandating that 40 percent of a community’s premises, to include apartment buildings and multiple-family homes, commit to becoming future customers. Residents are also asked to make a refundable $49 deposit toward the first month’s service. So far five of 32 towns have reached the 40 percent. Webb says Wired West expects to end the survey period by July.
“It really is important for the towns to get to that 40 percent number before we will actually build out there just to insure that the entire network can cover its cost and ideally return revenues to the towns after a period of time,” said Webb.
Becket’s Wired West delegate Jeremy Dunn says people in town are generally enthusiastic about bringing high-speed internet to the area, noting that some realtors have said it will increase property values. The town needs roughly 335 more backers to reach the 40 percent mark, which Dunn says has been difficult because a number of the town’s listed premises are second homes. West Stockbridge’s delegate Steve Sautman says with speeds of 25 megabytes per second, fiber-optic internet is becoming more of a necessity.
“To use everything from video streaming, FaceTime, Skype and just to have a strong secure connection back either to your work or if you do forums online, it’s a requirement,” Sautman said. “With the current DSL with speeds of 1 to 3 [megabytes per second] you can’t do or take advantage of all the things going on in the 21st century.”
Webb says its expected Wired West would own and operate the infrastructure once MBI manages its buildout. Webb says the network’s operation could be contracted out to regional companies. Nakajima says some towns are looking at partnering with companies for service individually. Webb says if a town approves the bonding authorization and meets its 40 percent mark this spring, that area could see service as early as the second half of 2016.
The state and federal governments have allocated roughly $140 million for Massachusetts’ 1,200-mile fiber optic network and this final leg to the underserved towns. That network brought service to community centers in more than 120 towns in early 2014. The entire state was supposed to be connected by 2011.